Hellfest, a three-day festival in the village of Clisson in western France, is second only to Wacken as the ultimate metal pilgrimage. Hellfest has only been around for a few years, but has already gained legendary status, attracting the biggest names in rock and metal and 152,000 visits in three days this year.
Music festivals tend to advertise on the basis of their headliners, and this year as usual Hellfest had stellar names – Deep Purple, Slayer, Linkin Park, Aerosmith, as well as new supergroup Prophets of Rage. An incredible experience to see all these bands on one ticket, but not unique. These bands are doing the rounds of the European summer festivals and indeed, more than one act joked with the crowd during their onstage banter “Hellfest is our favourite festival“, “You said that last week at Download” etc. In any case Hellfest had sold out before any of these acts had even been announced, which signifies that Hellfest is for true metal fans, there for the whole line-up and not just the big names. And for me the real joy of festival-going is not standing half a mile away from the main stage, only being able to see what’s going on via the big screens. It’s wandering the smaller arenas and getting right to the front, taking in the atmosphere, discovering new bands and building up one’s metal knowledge.
So this review will be a snapshot of the stages, a hot, sweaty and noisy wander through a festival that exemplifies both the rich history and exciting future of metal. The Hellfest grounds are divided into six stages, each with an over-arching theme (Main Stages 1&2 – hard rock/biggest acts; Altar – death metal/grindcore; Temple – black/doom metal; Valley – sludge/stoner ; Warzone – punk/hardcore). But the stages are only part of the story – with metal shopping centres, guitar and equipment demonstrations, tattoo parlours, and even an on-site Satanic wedding celebrant, this was a veritable Disneyland for metalheads. The attention to detail was impeccable, with dustbins fashioned into skulls, benches in the shape of bones, statues celebrating the greats such as Lemmy, and eateries providing horror-themed meals. Festival-goers felt taken care of, and the village of Clisson was also extremely welcoming, all of which added up to a positive atmosphere against which the notorious anti-Hellfest protests by local Christian groups stood no chance1.
First to the Temple stage, showing black and doom metal. There was of course a lot of corpse paint on offer, some of which didn’t react well to the extreme heat. Swedish band Ereb Altor and their fans were painted red and bloody at the beginning of their set, but that stuff soon began to run off, leaving them decidedly bedraggled. But their brand of Viking doom, often compared to Bathory, was really effective and I’ll be definitely be listening to their new album (Ulfven) out in July. Canadian one-man black metal project Monarque let the costume side down by wearing jeans with his cassock and spiked armour, but he was a great performer and managed to create a ghoulish atmosphere at 11am. Turisas are a Finnish folk metal band, and they had the most beautiful backdrop depicting a traditional golden icon. They are known for incorporating Finnish folk motifs with power and symphonic elements and growled vocals, and although they were not heavy enough for my taste it was very interesting to see metal solos played on the violin.
The most fascinating act on the Temple stage, and definitely one to watch going forward, was Igorrr. Gautier Serre’s one-man project has been called ‘the weirdest band in the world’, and his music is almost impossible to describe, although perhaps Baroquecore (the title of one of his EPs) does it best. He cites amongst his influences Scarlatti, Bach, Rameau, Aphex Twin, Cannibal Corpse and Meshuggah, and his music really is a gloriously bonkers mix of them all. Breakbeats, harpsichords, opera, growls – everything but the kitchen sink was thrown in to create something that might possibly be magnificent. The performance was deeply unnerving as well, with Igorrr in full Game of Thrones zombie costume and posturing ominously around the stage. I think I loved it, but I’m still not sure.
Next to the Altar stage, where my highlight was Decapitated. The Polish technical death metal pioneers are always brilliant live, and this performance was no exception – their precision and focus are mesmerising. Their new album Anticult continues the hint of groove which Decapitated have introduced in recent years, and they performed one track from the album – the first single ‘Never’. US bands Nails (hardcore/powerviolence) and Chelsea Grin (deathcore) played consecutively on the Saturday afternoon. Nails provided a solid set but it was Chelsea Grin who really got the young crowd going.
Old-school Californian thrashers Hirax had their heyday long before most of the Chelsea Grin fans were even born, but they attracted young and old to their Sunday afternoon set. Vocalist Katon W. DePena (the only remaining member of the original line-up) has made no concessions to modernity and kept his look and mannerisms resolutely 80s- battle jacket, studs, and copious amounts of pointing. Although Hirax never had riffs catchy enough to reach the upper echelons of thrash, their entertainment factor remains second to none thanks to DePena’s stage presence.
Head up and click the second tab for more discoveries at Hellfest!
Warzone was the most outlying stage, and suffered from a total lack of shelter from the sun. There was a solid stream of strong punk acts such as Trap Them, culminating in Warzone headliners Suicidal Tendencies, Dillinger Escape Plan, Rancid and The Damned. But for me nothing could possibly top While She Sleeps, who were something of an anomaly, both on this stage, and so early in the day. I imagine the Sheffield metalcore band were booked for this slot before their meteoric success this year, with their crowdfunded new album entering the UK top ten. While She Sleeps have a reputation for brilliant live performances – this was my first time seeing them and it was truly a special show. The arena was absolutely packed, with a constant stream of crowd-surfers and a huge pit, and the band looked genuinely delighted with the atmosphere. Beginning and ending the set with their two biggest hits – ‘You Are We’ and ‘Silence Speaks’ respectively – half an hour went all too quickly. At one point vocalist Lawrence Taylor disappeared from the stage, only to perform a death-defying leap from the sound tower at the back and surfed his way back to the stage in time for the next track. I was amazed, although apparently he always does this! “We’re having heavy metal for breakfast!” he shouted, acknowledging the energy of a crowd most of whom had probably only just emerged from their tents for the day, and performing like headliners despite their inappropriate stage time/location.
This review has focused on the underdogs, but it’s only fair to mention the Main Stage as well. Early in the day the Main Stage gives opportunities to smaller acts, but I felt this was rather a shame for Australian metalcore band Northlane, who were on before 11am on Sunday and suffered from nerves and mediocre sound quality. The metalcore genre requires a very clear mix, and in particular the lead guitar needs to ring out clearly, but unfortunately the main stage amps completely drowned it out. Vocalist Marcus Bridge is a charismatic frontman, and once he got over initial nerves gave an excellent performance, however I couldn’t help feeling Northlane would have been better on a smaller stage.
Steel Panther are an interesting phenomenon in that they are a parody act that has become accepted by the metal community as a serious band, and moreover whose success has eclipsed that of many of the very groups it is parodying. Steel Panther dress in fluorescent spandex and play the roles of 80s glam metal stars who live the clichéd life of groupies, drugs and alcohol. Their lyrics are ridiculous and amusingly offensive, but the music, while perfectly simulating 80s metal, is of very high quality. Guitarist Satchel manages to perform what is effectively a theatre show while playing flawless solos. However Steel Panther’s tightly choreographed set at Hellfest left me feeling uneasy, having been so excited to see them. Perhaps Steel Panther’s success will in fact become their downfall, because they can no longer be the losers who live in their mom’s basement; and the joke only works if their characters are losers. Perhaps the other problem was that I was at Hellfest with my husband, who had never heard of Steel Panther and thought they were a genuine band from the 80s, so he didn’t get the joke. He was shocked at the apparent misogyny and homophobia – and he sort of had a point. Saying that ‘We love French women because they are easy to have sex with’ is ok; then throwing in a rape-drug reference is not. Putting the spotlight on a woman in the audience who was willingly topless is ok; bringing girls onto the stage and then pressuring them into taking off their bras and kissing each other (during the delightful ’17 Girls in a Row’) is not. Since glam metal was already a parody of itself in the first place, the only way for Steel Panther to go was to ‘Lower The Bar’, the title of their latest album. And to be fair to them, that’s exactly what they did.
Steel Panther was not the only parody band at this Hellfest- Ultra Vomit, a comedy-grindcore band from Nantes, appeared on Saturday afternoon. As locals they perhaps received some special treatment in their late afternoon Main Stage slot, but they thoroughly deserved it. Comedy and grindcore may not seem to be obvious bedfellows, but somehow Ultra Vomit manage to pull it off. Singing exclusively in French, they are influenced by cartoons, toilet humour (example song title: ‘Pipi vs. Caca’- which they helpfully translated for the crowd as ‘Shit vs. Piss’- it’s about tolerance and diversity), and general absurdity, and with their good-naturedness and brilliant musicianship they get away with it. The local crowd loved them, everyone seemed to know the words, and during ‘La Ch’nille’ (‘Caterpillar’) thousands of people were doing a giant metal caterpillar (you had to be there).
The only problem at Hellfest – other than attending with a non-metal husband who was mystified by the whole thing – was the searing heat and dust; a warm wind on the Sunday whipped up thick dust storms and only then did I understand why so many masks had been on sale all weekend. But then what would an extreme metal festival be without some extreme weather to contend with. Such an impressive array of bands in one place, that it was impossible to leave without feeling that I had missed out on a lot. But there’s always next year…
All photos credited to Catherine Fearns.